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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

School Choice & Charters Opinion

Smooth Move... Not. The NSBA’s Hackneyed Attack on Charter Schools

By Rick Hess — June 02, 2010 2 min read
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I know and like the National School Boards Association. The NSBA’s executive director, Anne Bryant, is a good friend who has my respect and admiration. I’ve had a good, longstanding partnership with the NSBA on various projects and have been an occasional contributor to their terrific American School Board Journal. All of this left me puzzled and disheartened when I read the NSBA’s troubling and tone-deaf recommendations regarding the treatment of charter schools in a reauthorized NCLB (or ESEA, for those eager to whitewash the now unpopular law).

The NSBA’s five recommendations:

• "Require federally funded Charter Schools to abide by the same educational accountability requirements, and federal environmental, labor, and due process laws that traditional public schools must... • Establish local school boards as the sole authority for granting charters. They should determine accountability and the criteria that should be used in approving charter applications. • Provide local school boards the authority to decertify or not renew the charter of any school that fails to meet criteria set forth in the charter or as otherwise specified by the authorizing local school boards, including but not limited to a requirement that charter schools demonstrate that they are meeting their student achievement goals. • In cases where entities other than the local school district authorize the charter, require all schools receiving public funds to meet the same standards of accountability, and ensure that funds for traditional local schools are not diminished or reduced by the funding mechanism for charter schools. • Provide ongoing studies to determine: a) whether charter schools are broadly successful; b) the specific conditions and elements that primarily lead to that success; c) the conditions that lead or detract from positive interactions and sharing of information with the traditional public schools in the communities, and d) the educational and financial impact that charters and their growth have on traditional public schools."

Really, guys? The NSBA wants to focus on insisting that charters should suffer under the same overly prescriptive and anachronistic federal environmental, labor, and due process laws that stifle even reform-minded districts? Hmmmm... I’d have been much more cheered if they’d encouraged the feds to grant all districts the same enhanced leeway enjoyed by charter schools.

School boards as the only permissible authorizers? Even though we know boards tend to authorize very few schools, that most seem to do a lackadaisical job of authorizing, and that boards have very limited incentive to welcome or support meaningful competition? And I love the bit about empowering local boards to shut down charter schools for reasons that “include but are not limited to” student performance. The whole vibe is that of cable television or electric power companies telling us how we can help preserve their privileged status. Honestly, this whole shtick feels a little 1997--not a great use of political capital at this juncture.

Ensure that funds for traditional district schools are not “diminished” by charter schools? Just how is that supposed to work in locales where families are eagerly fleeing district schools for charters? What exactly does “diminish” mean here, anyway? The traditional district schools in Washington, DC, are spending more than $20,000 per pupil--even with more than a third of students enrolled in charters. It’s not clear whether DCPS has been “diminished” by charters or not (though DCPS Chancellor Michelle Rhee doesn’t seem to think so).

Pursue ongoing studies into the rationale for permitting schools to operate with enhanced autonomy and to understand why they’re successful? It’s a shame that the NSBA didn’t seize the opportunity to modestly hold itself to the same standard and ask for research as to why districts seem to have so much trouble emulating or effectively adopting practices utilized by high-achieving charter schools.

This was an opportunity for the NSBA to read the political tea leaves and make a virtue of necessity. It could have rhetorically welcomed the challenge posed by charters and used the popularity of charters as an excuse to seek more flexibility under federal law for districts. Instead, in a cut-off-nose-to-spite-face performance, the NSBA issued a broadside that’s likely to play poorly with the administration and crucial centrist Dems, alienate potential allies, and ultimately have little or no impact on the final bill. Whoops.

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